Thursday, December 10, 2009

“Happy Holidays”—Another Kind of Peace Sign

© 2009 by Joyce Mason
All Rights Reserved

I love my friends who “want to put Christ back in Christmas,” and I honor their viewpoint. I grew up with strong Catholic roots, and I love celebrating the birthday of Jesus. But I don’t think saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” necessarily does the trick of what’s at the heart of that Christ in Christmas expression—making people act more Christ-like or more aware of the religious roots of the season.

In fact, it can have the exact opposite effect. I am rarely this blunt, but I have to say it. In certain contexts, “Merry Christmas” is rude. It alienates Jews, Muslims, and practitioners of a variety of other religions or beliefs other than Christian. In a not so subtle way, it imposes your viewpoint on other people by just assuming they share it. “Happy Holidays” acknowledges the vast number of faiths that exist and respects a person’s right not to believe at all. It says, “Whatever you celebrate or don’t, I wish you well during this time of year where there’s a surge in generosity of spirit.”

Let’s put this in perspective. No one wants to inhibit your freedom to say Merry Christmas at church, among fellow Christians at home or in any other setting, except those that are more public where people of all faiths converge. If you know someone is Christian, “Merry Christmas” the right thing to say. “Happy Chanukah” is the appropriate greeting for someone who’s Jewish. Happy Solstice is a good bet for your favorite agnostic.

 But out and about, where you might not know someone’s spirituality or lack thereof—that’s another story. Here’s an empathy experiment. Imagine you’re Christian and you just landed on a planet where Christianity is not the norm. It’s a festive time of year and people are shouting (pick one) Happy Chanukah, Allah Be Praised, or Atheists Rock! No one acknowledges your beliefs, and you feel like a lonely petunia in an onion patch. If your beliefs are close to your heart, this can be painful and isolating. At best, it is hurtful or irritating; at worst, when done consistently, it contributes to an intimidating atmosphere where people do not feel safe to share themselves. Beliefs reflect the core of who we are.

How little it takes to acknowledge and celebrate diversity.

When “Happy Holidays” first became the politically correct greeting, I, too, resented it. I felt like a lifetime of celebrating the season in a way that wove religion, spiritual perspective, and general goodwill had been forcibly replaced by something that sounded secular and cold. It took me a long time to get the point. We are free to “talk amongst ourselves” in a very candid way in any homogenous group, but once we mix it up, we have to consider the comfort of others. It’s the Golden Rule. It’s the teaching of Jesus at his best, and I daresay of the prophets from any number of other religions.

Inclusiveness is the epitome of Christianity. Jesus ministered to the fringe of society—the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. This loving kindness and welcoming is reflected in the beliefs of many other paths up the mountain. I appreciate that there are those who believe in their heart of hearts that their faith is the one and only way to salvation. But out in the world, it’s not OK with me—or a lot of other people—to emphasize it. Religion can be even more divisive than politics and this time of year, especially, we need to focus on the love in which we’re all joined. There will never be peace on earth unless we learn to stand comfortably in our beliefs while respecting each other’s unique way of seeing things.

Lastly, we are wrong to assume that saying “Happy Holidays” is secular or implies a person whose only interest in December is shopping and the presents she receives. As one of my friends recently reminded me, the word “holiday” is derived from “holy day.” You can make the winter celebrations more ecumenical or universal, but you can’t deny their roots. Many people would be surprised to know that the Christian holiday traditions drew heavily from pre-existing pagan practices. The original “Christians” were Jews before they split into two separate faiths. The simple expression, “Happy Holidays,” has a lot more togetherness behind it than meets the eye. The degree to which that’s true depends on the mind and heart of the person saying it.

Let’s try a collective experiment. The next time you say “Happy Holidays,” make it an open-minded, open-hearted outpouring of goodwill and the only true gift anyone you can give anyone—to love them just the way they are.


Photo credit: +EPS WORLD RELIGIONS, DOVE © Casejustin |


Pop Art Diva said...

You know me, I'm sick to death of "politically correct" but I agree that Merry Christmas ignores many other spiritual views at this time of year.

I try to say Happy Holidays but after nearly 6 decades of saying Merry Christmas I have to be on my toes to catch it before it comes out!

Hopefully, in the spirit of the season, any wish of good tidings will be viewed in the context that it is spoken - as a wish for our fellow human beings to have a happy, merry, joyous season of cheer and sharing.

Hey, if someone wants to wish me HAPPY FESTIVUS or MERRY JINGLE TIME at least they didn't flip me the bird or hurl a "Bah, Humbug" at me!

Joyce Mason said...

Hi, Pop Art--

Great points! I agree that sometimes offense or tolerance are much in the eye of the beholder. It is difficult to change one's greeting after so many years. I, too, am happy to be wished Happy Anything with Love and Goodwill behind it, and having grown up Catholic in a Jewish neighborhood, I am honored to be wished Happy Chanukah. I celebrate as many of the seasonal holidays/holydays as possible. They are all connected in light, love, and respect for our mutual humanity!

At Catholic Mass, one of the repetitive responses to some of the things the priest says is, "And also with you." My birth mom, Helen, was infamously irreverent and loved throwing this phrase around in different contexts, where it indeed cracked me up. She didn't take insults well, so "Bah Humbug" or the bird would have probably pushed her buttons for a not so pleasant response. However, to "Bah Humbug," I'd have to take a page from her book and respond, "And also with you!" This would be accompanied by a big smile--like a smiley-face online--so the Scrooge would know I didn't really mean it. That would probably leave him flummoxed and--one can only hope--thinking. Thanks for helping me conjure that scene!

Susannah said...

Hi Joyce, I really enjoyed this post, and is something I feel strongly about and which you have put across so well.

In this country (England) it is still common place to say 'Happy Christmas', as 'Happy Holidays' (Holy Days) has not yet migrated over here! I wish it would.

In England it is very difficult to step outside of 'Christmas'.

Even finding cards to send that don't have Christmas on them is nearly impossible - another year I managed after much hunting to find some that said Seasons Greetings but this year have had no luck.

I have nothing against what a local mag called "a certain annual Christian Festival" :-) but am aware of the pagan roots of most of the celebrations and the fact that Christ was almost definitely not born at this time of year.

So at least in your country differing belief systems are taken into account, here if you are not actively involved in wishing people Happy Christmas it is awkward and you are seen as anti social and get comments such as bah humbug!

I am all for respecting all belief systems but find it difficult when only one path up the mountain is recognised.

Happy Holy Days to you Joyce!

Great post.

Joyce Mason said...

Susannah, thank you for your thoughtful comment and for putting this into global perspective. Nice to know we're beginning to recognize the original ingredients that went into America's "melting pot." If you need help in the future with more multi-faith or multi-perspective greeting cards, I suggest checking online. UNICEF cards are often wonderful that way and the United Nations Children's Fund is such a heartwarming cause. You'll love these UNICEF Cards on Amazon, starting with "People Join Together in Peace."

I often find that change has to start with where people already are and stretch them a little. Here's an idea. Perhaps, "Happy Christmas--or anything else you celebrate." Proves you're no Scrooge, but gets them thinking that there may be other seasonal holidays/holy days.

Agreed! Jesus was born in spring. The astronomy of the Star of Bethlehem and other Biblical clues reflect that fact. This is an example of transition from the pagan Solstice festivals to the newer Christian ideology. Placing Christmas near an already celebrated holiday worked well to this day. It's also an example of the Then-to-Now idea, same as "stretching" the Happy Christmas greeting.

Blessings of the Season, Susannah!

Pop Art Diva said...

Joyce - I'm STEALING your birth Mom's phrase - I love it for a response to all sorts of comments - and it might really throw off those snarkier little barbs we sometimes don't know exactly how to respond to!

Joyce Mason said...

Helen would be cheering you on from the Great Beyond and proud her other-wordliness caught on. She had quite a rebellious spirit. Seasons Grinnings!